You’d think that we child psychologists would have things figured out IRL –in real life. But sometimes we figure things out as we go along.

A colleague, Jessica Borelli, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Psychological Science at the University of California, Irvine, and a practicing psychologist (emPATH Clinical Services). She’s also the mother of a four-year-old daughter who began pitching what we’d call here in Texas a wall-eyed screaming fit when her mom tried to comb her long, tangled blonde hair before school.

In an article, she describes how she tried reasoning, rewards, new brushes, other tactics, but nothing worked.  Not until she used a technique she calls mentalizing, and followed a formula she calls OPEN, did she discover the hair battle wasn’t about her own mother-daughter dynamics.

O, in her formula, is an examination of one’s Own emotions. Though this is hard to do when you’re tussling with a stubborn child, Borelli advises stepping back and seeing if you are transferring some of your own tensions from other situations onto this one.

P is for Pause—to examine if your child may be operating on emotions of fear, or situations you might not immediately know about. 

E is for Engage—by asking open-ended questions during a less stressful time about what the child is experiencing. One example: “I’m wondering if something is upsetting you a lot.”

N is for New experiences. A parent can learn that a child becomes upset in certain situations not because of the particular scenario but because of something quite different, almost unnoticeable to a parent but important to a child.

In Dr. Borelli’s story, she found her daughter wasn’t objecting to the pain of hairbrushing, nor typical four-year old authority testing. It turns out that her daughter was the only blonde in the after-school program, and her neatly-styled hair made her stand out. Borelli found this out through casual questioning and was able to compromise with a gradual progression from tangled hair to a less-styled version than before.

How about you? Do you have techniques that have helped you with an inexplicable situation?